Home > World > David Kaufman: Black Man Rising: President Obama and the Anti-Defamation League’s "African-American Issue"

David Kaufman: Black Man Rising: President Obama and the Anti-Defamation League’s "African-American Issue"

January 3rd, 2010, 04:01 am admin Leave a comment Go to comments

Just a few weeks ago, the venerable Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released its list of the 10 “Top Issues Affecting Jews in 2009″. Published annually, the report detailed the key geopolitical incidents and concerns which shaped both the good and bad news last year in Jewish communities worldwide.

From the ongoing threat of a nuclear-armed Iran to June’s Holocaust Museum shooting in Washington, DC, the passing of the Federal Hate Crimes Bill to the UN’s highly controversial Goldstone Report, the ADL brief illustrates that both philo- and anti-semitism remained alive and well in 2009.

While all of the ADL’s “top issues’ were certainly newsworthy, the group chose one in particular to kick-off its missive: “Barack Obama became the first African-American to assume the presidency”. Although part of a larger talking point highlighting executive changes in both Washington and Jerusalem, the wording of this statement could not be more curious.

Because in honoring Pres. Obama’s election, the ADL chose to conspicuously lead with and solely focus on his race — not his campaign, his party-affiliation, education or any element of his administration or cabinet. Just his race. As the ADL makes abundantly clear, any Obama news worth reporting can legitimately begin by qualifying his ethnic origins.


As the son of a Jewish-American mother and African-American father, I am intimately-familiar with the complex, collaborative and often contentious history between Blacks and Jews in this nation. And indeed, I am not wholly opposed to the ADL’s decision to highlight Pres. Obama’s race as an “issue” that affects Jews — and by association, Israel. What is bothersome, however, is the wantonness, randomness and insincerity of the ADL’s actions.

As an organization rooted in rooting out bigotry and discrimination, the ADL is well aware of the weight afforded to any race-based analysis of the Obama presidency — no matter how celebratory or minor. Well funded and unquestionably well connected, ADL officials are also clearly conscious of the import afforded to any document resulting from their press machine — particularly one with as loaded a title as “ADL Highlights Top Issues Affecting Jews in 2009″.

At best, the ADL should know better than to include Pres. Obama’s race anywhere in this critically important missive. At worst, one could legitimately ponder just what exactly they hoped to achieve with such race laden language.

The problem is we have no idea. Because after launching their report via race, the ADL’s release essentially never mentions it again. Instead, in its brief appearance, race is employed as a canard, a wild-card, a sound bite — the ADL is instructing us to believe that race matters, we’re just not told exactly why. With American Jewish leaders among Pres. Obama’s most vocal critics since his inauguration, such lack of context is reckless, insensitive and simply lazy.

This is not the first — and potentially not the last — time the ADL has highlighted Pres. Obama’s race when commenting on his politics or policies. Indeed, in a response to June’s historic Cairo speech — the one later lauded as “groundbreaking” in the Top 10 list — ADL national director Abraham Foxman not only made note of Obama’s race, he suggests it may be muddling his Middle Eastern agenda.

“Every individual brings his own baggage (to the presidency),” Foxman said. “He’s an African American . . . and he has rediscovered his Islamic roots after two years. I don’t like it, but I understand it.”

What’s most troubling about the ADL’s Top 10 List is the way it reaffirms the organization’s — and perhaps American Jewry’s — historic inner-conflict with African Americans. On one hand, you have statements like Foxman’s above — which spuriously links the President’s race with Islam and unfounded anti-Israel sentiments. But then you have documents such as Rage Grows in America: Anti-Government Conspiracies — which bravely and dramatically highlights “the current hostility (that has) swept across the United States” since Pres. Obama’s election. The ADL releases an impassioned statement lauding Obama’s inauguration as “a true milestone in our history and it is, in one sense, a realization of the dream”. But then it shamefully stays silent when the President is viciously attacked for his race by a group of young Jewish Americans in Jerusalem this summer. I’m hardly alone in wondering just how quiet the ADL would have remained had those kids been Black and their target Benjamin Netanyahu!

I’m a Jew and a Zionist and firmly believe that anti-semitism must be identified and attacked by any means necessary. Five thousand years of history more than confirm that Jews can be unjustly, violently and murderously targeted even in the most progressive societies — from Moorish Spain and Weimar Germany to an isolationist 1930s America and even Israel itself.

Nonetheless, much like the folks behind the Marriage Equality movement, there remains something rotten, churlish and downright sloppy about the ADL’s relationship with Pres. Obama’s race. Indeed, the fickle, irresponsible and almost infantile behavior of leaders from both groups — American Gays and Jews — has been perhaps the most disappointing political development of the past 12 months. I may be premature in predicting an unholy alliance between the Homo-Left and Judeo-Right. But such a marriage of convenience can no longer entirely be discounted as both sides — mired in misguided thinking and embracing similarly incendiary language — strive to confirm the old Arab maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Pres. Obama is clearly no enemy to either group and his race has no part in any discussion highlighting political issues affecting…well…anyone. I asked the ADL to explain why they placed Obama’s race so prominently in their release and never received a clear answer.

Intended for and distributed among mostly Jewish- and Israel-focused organizations, I suspect the ADL likely figured their “African American issue” would simply remain “within the family”. But in this era of Web 2.0, the fact that ADL officials could assume such verbiage could possibly pass unnoticed is, perhaps, the most offensive misstep of all.

As we enter a new year — and new decade — here’s hoping the ADL’s next Top 10 list is written with far more sechel than its last.

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